Histoire de Manon Lescaut et du Chevalier Les Grieur (by Abbé Prevost).
To say that the writers of French fiction are always fluctuating between realism and sentimentalism is only to say of them what is equally true of English novelists. But there is a thoroughness in French writing which there is not in English; and their realism seems more real, and their sentimentalism more sentimental than ours. They describe things and persons which we taboo, and justify themselves by saying that they do but paint what exists. On the other hand, they rise to heights of fancy and rhetoric, go back to first principles, and claim an intimacy with the Bon Dieu, on which we should not venture. A hundred years ago, there was the Abbé Prevost to represent the realism, and Rousseau the sentimentalism, exactly as Balzac and George Sand represent them in our own time. The difference, however, which a century has made in the respective types is very considerable, and it is worth while to know what the realism of France was a century back, in order that we may compare it with its modern counterpart. We cannot say that the comparison is entirely in favour of the later generation. Manon Lescaut, the only one of the very numerous productions of the Abbé Prevost which has survived, has been the model of a conspicuous class of French novels, and more especially of the Dame aux Camellias. But although M. Alexandre Dumas fils has copied closely the main features of his original, there is the widest possible interval between the execution of the two works. The Abbé Prevost, although he treats of courtesans and rogues, is always a gentleman. There is not the slightest approach to voluptuous materialism in Manon Lescaut; and we are sure that the author would have thought himself disgraced by the minute nastiness of his successor.
The Abbé Prévost was born in 1697, at Hesdin, in Artois, of a family of some distinction. He was educated by the Jesuits of his native town, and thence proceeded to complete his studies at the Collège d'Harcourt, at Paris. He was very highly thought of, and the Jesuits had already persuaded him to enter the noviciate, when one day, at the age of sixteen, he suddenly abandoned his sacred calling, and enlisted in the army. The wars of Louis XIV. were almost at an end, but he hoped to find some chance of distinguishing himself. His hopes were disappointed, and he returned to the Jesuits, who eagerly welcomed him back. Once more, however, the attractions of an active life prevailed, and he again entered the army, and seems to have received some promotion, though the exact grade to which he attained is not known. The nature and end of his secular career may be sketched in his own words, “Some years passed,” he tells us, “while I followed the profession of arms, was, I will own, lively and open to the influences of pleasure; in the words of M. de Cambrai, ‘la sagesse, demandait bien des precautions qui m'échappèrent.' I leave my readers to judge what, at the age of twenty to twenty-five, must have been the heart and feelings of a man who wrote Cleveland at thirty-five or thirty-six. The unhappy ending of a too tender engagement at last led me to the tomb; this is the name I give to the respectable order where I buried myself, and where I remained for some time so far dead that my nearest relations did not know what had become of me.” This respectable order, which he entered at the age of twenty-four, was that of the Benedictines of the congregation of St. Maur. He remained for six years sedulously engaged in the exercises of religion, and devoting himself to the most laborious study. He tried hard to fall into the spirit of the congregation among which he lived, and to banish the thought of the outer world which he had loved so keenly, and had quitted rather in a moment of temporary disgust than from any profound conviction. His order employed him in different capacities, in order to occupy and tranquillize him. He was a diligent historian of Christian antiquity, a successful controversialist, and a popular preacher. But it would not do; and his heart was really elsewhere. Relying, it is said, on a Papal dispensation which an intrigue withheld from him, he left the convent; and then, alarmed at the consequences of the step, he fled into Holland. He spent six years in exile, partly in Holland and partly in England, and it was at this period of his life that most of his novels were written. The Memoirs of a Man of Quality was the first and the chief of these, and Manon is really an episode in these Memoirs, although it was published separately a few years later. At length, in 1734, the Abbé received permission to return to France as a secular priest, and for thirty years he continued to reside in Paris as one of the hardest working littérateurs of the day. Like Goldsmith, he was ready to do whatever the booksellers set him, and he worked away with indifference whether he was ordered to write a History of William the Conqueror, a History of Celebrated Voyages, or a translation of Richardson, Hume, or Middleton's Cicero. It is said that he allowed his bookseller to make rather too good a thing of him, for his habits were so simple and his life so retired that he was indifferent to more than the necessaries of life. He had just established himself in a cottage near Chantilly, which he intended as a retreat for his old age, when he was seized, while walking in the forest, with a fit of apoplexy. He was thought to be dead, and a village surgeon considering him an interesting subject, began opening the body. The shock recalled him to consciousness, and he expired in the most horrible agony. It deserves to be recorded, that in his pocket was found a paper containing the sketch of three moral and religious works, to writing which he purposed to devote the remainder of his life.
Manon Lescaut is so great a favourite with the French public, that new editions are constantly being published, and they are almost all preceded by biographies of the author. There is much reason in this, for the life of the Abbé Prevost throws great light on the story which has made his name famous. From his life. we gather the idea of a man of strong feeling, of tenderness, of an excited and passionate character, of little fixity of purpose, but still with a sincere desire not to suffer himself to be corrupted—controlling himself in his, better moments, and disgusted by the coarser side of worldly pleasure, while fascinated by its more brilliant aspect. Above all, we apprehend him to have had something simple, genuine, and almost childish in his composition. Manon bears the traces of such a character. Its naïveté, its natural ease, its intensity of passion carry us through scenes, and familiarize us with persons, that would have been repulsive if treated by a man of vulgar sensuality. There is no morbidness, no apology for taking up such a subject, no wish to heighten or to disguise. The tale is told because to the author's mind it seems true, and because his readers will like to have it told. It begins at once, and rushes in medias res at the very opening. The first pages inform us how the Chevalier Des Grieux at seventeen met Manon at sixteen, how he saw her getting out of the coach at Amiens, and how instantly he fell in love with her. Thenceforward the story rolls on, and the history of the unhappy couple is pursued with that artless art which carries us forward, because o those things happen that seem inevitable. Manon is the most tender of mistresses until poverty threatens to knock at the door, and then she flies to a richer lover. But the Chevalier is too deeply attached to care about inconstancy, and waits patiently till his mistress returns to him. Friends and relations try to reclaim him, but in vain. He will do anything to stay near his Manon. He turns rogue, he cheats at cards, he lives by joining a combination of sharpers; and however often his mistress leaves him, he is overjoyed when she condescends to come back. He even joins with her in trying to plunder one of her rich admirers, and both are thrown into prison. At last she is condemned to be sent to America as a fille perdue, but he will not be shaken off, and accompanies her to New Orleans. Fresh intrigues threaten to break up their intercourse, when he carries her off with him into the wilderness, trodden only by the Indians, and there she dies in his arms. He is rescued by a friend, named Tiberge, who has never ceased to help him, although lamenting deeply the course of his long infatuation. The Chevalier returns to Europe, and then tells his story-to a stranger, who had had an opportunity of showing him an accidental kindness; and so, without a word of reflection or sentiment, without any ending but what such a story would have in real life, ends a tale that is certainly one of the most remarkable creations of the French genius in the eighteenth century.
Some of the French critics have pronounced that the Abbé Prévost wrote Manon Lescaut by a happy accident. In his other tales the ease of narration becomes mere prolixity, and the passionate tenderness fades into a group of ordinary intrigues. And in Manon Lescaut, as in the productions of other novelists of that time--of Le Sage and Fielding—we scarcely feel the excellence of the work as we read it. The story is told so straightforwardly, that we are neither invited nor permitted to analyse the pleasure it gives us. But when we look back we find that Manon and the Chevalier have been strangely interesting, and the lucky accident really consisted in the author either remembering or inventing the two characters. The former is the more probable, and it is impossible not to suspect that in Manon we have a reminiscence of the engagement trop tendre of the Abbé's youth. This woman, with her true attachment to and honest admiration of her lover, her unaffected determination not to be poor, her avowed hankering after the superfluities of life, her delight in tricking the rich fools she preys on, and her merriment when she gets her Chevalier to play this roguish game with her, is so lifelike that she overcomes us with her reality, and claims something of the indulgence which we extend to a living person. The Chevalier again has a kind of gentlemanly melancholy about him which becomes a man of that quality, and makes us think twice before we damn him. He offends against every standard of judgment. His infatuated love is an insult to strict principle. He flies in the teeth of worldly wisdom by his invariable readiness to take a woman back who has deceived and left him. He violates common honesty in order that he may protract his guilty career. But so well is the unity of his character preserved, that all these offences seem natural. They are but steps in a career, which, looked at as a whole, excites pity and sympathy quite as much as disapprobation.
The Abbé, in a preface to his story, expresses a hope that Manon Lescaut may be found moral and edifying, because it shows the great misery into which illicit love brings those who entertain it. This sort of moral is not generally found, we believe, to be very efficacious. In the first place, the loss of future worldly prosperity has extremely slight weight with the class of persons that are capable of imitating the conduct of the Chevalier Des Grieux; and secondly, the misfortunes of the Chevalier are greater than come within the average experience of his imitators. The moral of the book, so far as it has any moral, lies at once in its reality and its reserve. If we assume that life as it is should be, within certain limits of decency, the theme of the novelist, there is much reason for saying that so very large and important a part of actual life as that occupied by illicit love cannot be overlooked. Who ought to write on this subject—and still more, who ought to read what is written– is a different matter. But taking it for granted that the theme ought to be handled for some readers, then the question of morality only arises as to the execution of the task, and it is possible that the execution may be moral; and it will be all the more likely to be so if it is, free from moralizing. In this sense Manon Lescaut may be called a moral book. The object of such literature is to be real; and Manon Lescaut is eminently real. There is no idealizing vice, no confusing one kind of passion with another, no hesitation in painting the degradation of character that ensues. And if the book is realistic, the realism consists in the acceptance of consequences, and in the fidelity to a conception of character. There is none of that loathsome realism which has gone to such prodigious lengths in modern French novels, and which describes everything that the modesty of all, except the publicly immodest, would keep concealed. It argues the most singular depravation of taste that such things can be tolerated. It is quite true that prudery begets prurience, and that when the public discussion of illicit love is too rigidly excluded from literature, we have hankerings after it appearing in the most curious way. Mr. Albert Smith, for instance, introduced in his last “Mont Blanc" a young lady, who expressed, with a sly look, a great wish to go to the “naughty opera," and the applause and laughter of the audience amply justified him. But what could be more singular, if we reflect on it, than that an ordinary goodish girl should find food for mirth and playful allusion in the sin and sorrows of the Traviata? But all this is the justification of treating the subject as it ought to be treated, and as it is treated in Manon Lescaut—with fidelity, with frankness, without sermonizing, but with a largeness that looks to the whole of life, and an abhorrence of the brutality that unveils the minutiae of an intrigue. It is not the justification of treating it as it is treated by the younger Dumas and by Théophile Gautier.
Saturday Review, July 17, 1858.